In a recent editorial applauding passage of the “Voting Restoration Amendment,” we urged the Florida Legislature to “act with deliberate speed to implement” the measure — without “creating additional barriers.”
More than 64 percent of Floridians approved Amendment 4 in the Nov. 6 election. Passage of the amendment was warranted because the state constitution has stated: “No person convicted of a felony … shall be qualified to vote or hold office until restoration of civil rights …”
The process used by the governor and Cabinet to restore rights has been discriminatory, costly to applicants and unnecessarily complicated. As a result, some 1.5 million Floridians are disenfranchised despite having paid their dues.
According to the ballot summary: “This amendment restores the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation. The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, who would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the Governor and Cabinet vote to restore their voting rights on a case by case basis.”
Our concern about barriers to implementation was rooted in the Legislature’s refusal to respect the will of voters (for example, in a 2014 amendment on land conservation) and its use of regulatory roadblocks to stymie the 2016 medical-marijuana amendment.
Recent communications from Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, diminished the concerns expressed in our editorial. We hope his message will provide Amendment 4′s supporters with comfort.
“No legislative or executive action is necessary to implement Amendment 4,” Simon wrote.
He continued: “It is our analysis, having been part of the small team that drafted the constitutional amendment, and bolstered by the counsel that we have received working on this matter for years from Jon Mills, former dean of the University of Florida Law School and a former speaker of the House, who represented us on the constitutionality of the proposal before the Florida Supreme Court, that:
“The language of Amendment 4 is self-executing; no legislation is necessary. The amended Constitution now reads: ‘any disqualification from voting … shall terminate …’” and “voting rights shall be restored upon completion …” of the terms of sentence.
In other words, Simon said, starting Jan. 8, any former felons who have completed the terms of their sentence can register to vote by affirming on the application that their rights have been restored, the same way they affirm that they are U.S. citizens.
Simon added that he and other drafters of the amendment are not so “naive” to think that someone, perhaps legislators, won’t attempt to erect barriers that might make registering to vote more difficult for ex-felons. But proponents carefully wrote the amendment and made clear during state Supreme Court preview of the measure that completion of the terms of a sentence are limited to payment of costs imposed by a judge.
So, here’s a fine opportunity for the Legislature and the executive branch: They can enable something positive to happen simply by doing nothing.